“Why Haiti?” The question on the minds and lips of anyone following this country’s trajectory – why is Haiti suffering so? Since wrestling its independence from France in 1804, the country has veered between political dictatorship and political upheaval. Over 50% of its population lives in devastating poverty, earning Haiti the dubious distinction of being the poorest country in the western Hemisphere and one of the world’s poorest countries as a Least Developed Country (LDC). As if that is not enough, Haiti has suffered two deadly earthquakes in the last ten (10) years, the last one occurring just weeks ago. And just prior to that its President was assassinated. Because of this apparent list of unceasing woes, it is not uncommon to hear speculation that Haiti has been “cursed” or is suffering because of its voodoo religion.
Haiti’s “curses” are man-made
However, Haiti’s misfortunes are predominantly man-made. Yes, even the earthquakes. Other countries suffer tremors of similar intensity without the enormous loss of life and the wide-spread devastation. Haiti’s inability to similarly withstand these tremors result from corruption and a lack of accountability; from dwellings and infrastructure being built to sub-standard codes not meant to withstand the inevitable consequences of being situated on an earthquake fault.
Haiti faced gargantuan challenges in its first years of political independence. Like other former colonies that became independent during that period, these challenges included nation-building without the models or institutional tools to build democracies. With the exception of the United States, countries were either ruled by monarchs, or owned by them. Most of Africa and Asia fell into the latter category, while the European metropolitan countries were in the former group. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, first ruler of independent Haiti, was proclaimed “Emperor for Life”, with the right to name his successor. A cycle of assassinations and dictatorships, with brief periods of rule by an elected head soon followed. This rocky beginning is not what explains Haiti’s poverty and instability today, however. The countries across Central and South America followed a similar pattern of despotic rule and political upheavals for centuries. The Dominican Republic, Haiti’s more stable and richer neighbor, had decades of political dictatorship, brutality, and corruption, complete with US interventions just like Haiti.
What makes Haiti’s path so very different from these other countries is having to face the consequences of its temerity in having led the only successful slave revolt to create an independent state led by formerly enslaved Africans. For this historic achievement, Haiti was feared, vilified, and ostracized by the international community which refused to recognize the new state. Isolated diplomatically and economically for decades, the country was hampered in its growth. In 1825 France, its former metropolis, brought gunships and forced Haiti to agree to the punitive payment of 150 million francs – about US$ 3 billion today. Reportedly, as late as 1914, 80% of Haiti’s budget had to be devoted to just the interest payments on this crippling debt. It took Haiti more than a century to rid itself of this debt in 1947. The corrupt Duvalier father and son dynasty which ruled Haiti for almost 30 years between 1957 and 1986 incurred new debt to pay for their opulent lifestyle – more man-made tragedy. That newer debt has since been forgiven.
However, the vilification and racism continue. We see this in the explanations for Haiti’s successful revolt as resulting from “a pact made with the devil”. What other explanation could there possibly be for a country where black people fought off the chains of slavery? Also after the 2010 earthquake, in his article, “The Underlying Tragedy” New York Times columnist, David Brooks uses Haiti’s culture to attempt to answer this question of “Why Haiti?” Acknowledging that the history discussed above is a factor, David Brooks nevertheless zeroes in on what he terms “a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences” that lie at the heart of Haiti’s poverty. These cultural influences include the influence of voodoo and irresponsibility of Haitians.
The voodoo theme recurs constantly. In fact, Haiti, like its Caribbean neighbors, is a predominantly Christian country with a small percentage of practitioners of West-African based beliefs and practices (obeah in Jamaica, santeria in Cuba, voodoo in Haiti), some of which find their way into the broader culture of these populations comprised of the descendants of enslaved Africans. The focus on Haiti’s voodoo reflects the fear of the white plantation slave-owning societies at the time of the Haitian Revolution that they would be next; fears kept alive and propagated by pop culture which perpetuate the idea of Haiti’s innate backwardness and inability to find its own solutions.
Finding Haitian Solutions
Recognizing the complexity of factors that need to be addressed for Haiti to finally gain the prosperity and peace it deserves, I also know that it cannot be done without giving Haitians a true voice in their affairs. Not widely covered in the international media is the creation by Haitian civil society organizations of a Commission to Find a Haitian Solution to the Crisis. After months-long consultations with all sectors of society and the Haitian diaspora, the Commission has developed a process that will select an interim transitional government to lead the country into free and fair elections. Given the questions surrounding the legitimacy of the process and results of the last election, the agreement developed by the Commission is an essential step to restoring a government in which Haitians have confidence. The Commission is working to get local buy-in and international support for this approach.
How We Can Help
We can help by also seeking and supporting Haitian solutions – whether it’s in the products that we buy or more immediately, the organizations to which we give our money.
Here are some Haitian organizations working in Haiti to provide immediate earthquake relief –
- FOKAL – a 26-year old Haitian NGO with rapid response expertise
- Haiti Renewal Alliance International – a 10-year old Haitian diaspora organization
- Trees That Feed Foundation – which produces breadfruit flour and biscuits that it is distributing to the needy
Please donate to one or more of these organizations and Help Haitians Help Themselves!